The Menu: Our favourite pub in the world and an introduction to Romanian cuisine

The Menu: Our favourite pub in the world and an introduction to Romanian cuisine
Win a super product pack and a copy of Trisha’s Transformation to celebrate the launch of Mr Bell’s online shopping portal

When credit is being doled out for the revival of the English Market, beginning the modern restoration that has made it the jewel in Cork’s culinary crown, special praise is usually reserved for the 1990s arrival of Isabelle Sheridan’s On the Pig’s Back, The Real Olive Company and Iago cheese and delicatessen. 

But in the early 1980s, The Menu recalls the initial arrival into the market of Moroccan chef Driss Belmajdoub and the subsequent beginnings of his Mr Bell’s Global Food Emporium, retailing a global range of ethnic spices, herbs and condiments that roamed far beyond the usual range of suspects from India and China. 

For well over three decades, Mr Bell’s has expanded the palate and epicurean experimentation of generations of Leesiders and allowed professional Cork chefs to put an extra pep in the step of their own culinary output.

Sadly, Driss died in 2016 but his children Alan and Nadia have continued with his legacy. The two English market outlets and the warehouse outlet in Togher continue to trade but, to celebrate the launch of their wonderful new website and online shopping portal, Mr Bell’s are running a competition to win a copy of Jacob’s on the Mall chef Trisha Lewis’ cookbook Trisha’s Transformation and a goodie basket of ingredients to enable completion of the recipes. To win, follow on Instagram (@Mr.Bells.Global.Food.Emporium) tagging three friends, closing date, August 5. (www.mrbells.ie

The Menu’s most favourite pub in the world, Levis’ Cornerhouse, in Ballydehob, is so ‘bijou’, social distancing becomes a serious issue so ever-enterprising proprietors Joe O’Leary and Caroline O’Donnell have taken out the hammer and saw to cover in much of the garden space to the rear, providing seating for the return of last year’s wildly successful August pop-up, Belfast’s much acclaimed Bia Rebel Ramen food truck. 

Advance booking for table service only with a minimum food order of €10 (cash only, no credit cards), for maximum 1.5 hours. (Multiple sittings. (Thurs/Fri: 5pm, 7pm & 9pm; Sat: 3pm, 5pm, 7pm, 9pm; Sunday 1.30pm, 3.30pm; Mon: 1.30pm 3.30pm, 6.30pm). Bookings: email levisbiarebel@gmail.com

Book of the week

Carpathia: Food from the Heart of Romania by Irina Georgescu is an understated gem, a gentle and slow burning introduction to Romanian cuisine, not dissimilar to contemporary Irish cooking in that it is a ‘crossroads cuisine’ that has absorbed multiple culinary influences from beyond its borders yet remains based around a core group of elemental ingredients and produce.

For Romanians, those include pork, fermented dairy products (yoghurt, cheese), vegetables (garlic especially and lots of pickles), and fruit (apples, in particular), a surprisingly large amount of it easily accessible to Irish shoppers, and their primal relationship with polenta is akin to our own with the potato.

Carpathia, by Irina Georgescu, is a delightful introduction to Romanian cuisine
Carpathia, by Irina Georgescu, is a delightful introduction to Romanian cuisine

It is essentially a peasant cuisine, unsurprising for a people that spent so long deprived even of essentials under communist rule and survived by employing traditional methods designed to feed during both feast and famine. 

The first chapter, Food For Sharing: Small Plates, Starters, Salads, kicks off with the ‘Full Romanian’ breakfast, cheesy polenta, soured cream and runny fried egg, this more-ish comforter a certain cure for all that ails you, if ever there was one. 

Salads are simple, a primary ingredient and one or two supporting players while Slanina is an immensely popular Romanian lardo although you’ll have to ask your guests to sip on their drinks for at least three months before it’s ready. Romania, like most other European countries, has a strong sourdough tradition but the recipes in Breads and Street Food Bakes are all made with fast action yeast, more achievable perhaps for the novice and, if not quite authentic, sound introductory recipes.

Traditional broths thickened with butter beans, rice or potato and sometimes enriched with egg beaten with sour cream are eaten between starter and main course, a tangy, sour element added: if it is fermented wheat bran (bors), then they are called bors; if vinegar or pickle brine, they are ciorba.

The Main Event features traditional main courses, primarily stews, casseroles or single tray dishes, eaten with pickles, polenta or dumplings, hearty fare with stonking rich flavours and plenty of fruit, especially apples and quince, while Desserts, my favourite chapter, features comforting, hearty baked confections. A final chapter on pickles, preserves and compotes completes a most charming production and, studded as it is with tantalising pictures of stunning rural landscapes and evocative cityscapes, and an edible postcard from a most beautiful country to boot.

Today's Special

Made with pure raw Irish apple cider vinegar, Ballyhoura Apple’s Apple Cider Vinegar Lemonade is exquisitely poised between sweet and crisp tartness, a gentle effervescence further lightens bright citric notes already mollified by sweet honey and with no additives or preservatives whatsoever, it is a drink of simple elemental flavour. It is also posited as a cocktail mixer. 

Today’s Special: Ballyhoura Apple Farm’s Cider Vinegar Lemonade
Today’s Special: Ballyhoura Apple Farm’s Cider Vinegar Lemonade

Real lemonade crops up regularly in cocktails although The Menu fancies a spirit would upset that poised equilibrium of flavour, losing the essential purity of the original lemonade … but, having said all that, The Menu immediately rose to the challenge. 

While the go-to spirit for lemonade cocktails is usually vodka, The Menu began riffing on the apple cider notes and found himself reaching for leathery apple flavours of Longueville House’s superb Irish Apple Brandy, discovering immediate soul partners separated at birth. Some freshly bruised mint and several drops of The Menu’s own cinnamon sugar syrup yielded a summer sundowner for the ages — an Evening Eden, perhaps? www.ballyhouraapplefarm.com

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